There’s nothing quite like wandering through wild country by the light of the moon on a winter’s night. I find the experience exhilarating and always wonder why I don’t indulge myself more frequently.
Maol Bhuidhe is one several bothies that provide refuge for travelers through the great wilderness that lies between the Road to the Isles to the South and the Lochcarron road to the North. The sheer emptiness of this country captured my imagination the first time I saw it on a map, but it wasn’t until last winter that I took my first trip into Maol Bhuidhe using the route marked in blue on the map below. The cycle from Killilan to Iron Lodge was an icy ordeal; the ascent to the bealach between Faochaig and Aonach Bhuidhe on foot was equally tough. The snow was deep and our packs were dreadfully heavy, laden with winter mountaineering equipment in addition to the usual charge of food, beer and coal. We arrived at the bothy at 0300 in such a fatigued state that our climbing equipment remained unused.
We didn’t expect to meet another soul that weekend but we were in for a surprise. The Maintenance Officer (MO), a sprightly septuagenarian who thought nothing of walking from his house in Inverness to carry out some work on the roof of the Kearvaig bothy near Cape Wrath, appeared early on Saturday afternoon. He spent much of the day cleaving burnable chunks from a large piece of bogwood using a splitting maul and a hammer. Come evening time he regaled us with stories of his unorthodox lifestyle, which involved spending 150 nights a year in bothies. This was a wonderful revelation to me; that in the 21st century it is still possible to effectively live the life of a vagrant, travelling the length of the country on foot and spending every night in a bothy or doss.
We remembered many of the MO’s stories as we sat round the bothy fire on Saturday night. The reason that he was able to devote so much time to the bothying life was because he had no wife. He told us in his broad Lancastrian accent how his first two wives had deserted him (‘fooked off’) then went on to tell us about his third wife, who he had really liked. The tale had the makings of a great joke, but ended in tragedy rather than punchline. The third wife had died after a year and instead of finding another he answered the call of the wild.
Detractors of bothies often complain about mice. Such whingers would find no cause for complaint at Maol Bhuidhe. The MO happened upon a couple of adders dozing in the sunshine one day as he walked in from Bendronaig. He scooped them up into his bag and released them in the vicinity of the bothy. He maintained that they have kept the mice at bay ever since.
he MO has made a number of improvements to the bothy in the time it has been under his stewardship, he was justly proud of the wood paneling and the smoke-free fireplace, but his greatest achievement was the installation of a swee. You may not have heard of swees and this is entirely understandable, a quick web search didn’t turn up a single use of the word in this context so I am pleased to be keeping the word alive. A swee is a pot stand on an arm, mounted on a vertical pipe beside the fire. You place your cooking pot on the swee then swing it over the fire to boil up your water. The MO has been inspired by a swee that he had seen in the Oban bothy and had a heavy duty replica fabricated from angle iron by an Inverness blacksmith. After carting this monstrosity all the way to Maol Bhuidhe he found to his dismay that it wasn’t quite the right size and had to carry it all the way back to the smiddy. The second iteration of the swee fitted perfectly and is still in place.
The MO gave us many tips. The one that lodged in my mind was that he always approached the bothy from Attadale (the red route) rather than as we had from Killilan, so when we planned this year’s visit we decided to try this route, expecting it to take much less time than the blue route. We got a reasonably early start and made it to Bendronaig in about 2 hours. We left our bikes there and set off just after 2200, fully expecting to arrive at Maol Bhuidhe by midnight. As we approached Loch Calavie an extremely strange noise wafted to our ears, an eerie swooshing noise that defied explanation. It sounded like a jet fighter, the quiet part as the plane approaches, petering out before the louder portion as the plane passes overhead. The overall impression was of some form of monstrous beast, respiring in its lair. It turned out to be coming from the frozen loch, as the burns transported meltwater into the loch it set up stresses in the ice and the noises that had transfixed us were presumably the result of these stresses dissipating through the icepack.
Beyond the loch the last 2.5 km to the bothy were on untracked country, hard walking through peat hags and hummocky moraines. Guided by the coires of Aonach Bhuidhe we picked a line and struck off, the frosted grass rusting and sparkling like tinsel beneath our boots. As the time crept closer to 0200 we grew tired and I could feel my brain slowing down. Several times I was convinced I could see the loch in the distance but it turned out to be a small snowpatch right in front of me. The bothy did not give up easily, the loch and river both putting up a struggle. One of our party suffered a dismaying double immersion in an ice cold chest-deep bog. When we finally arrived at Maol Bhuidhe bothy at 0215 on Saturday morning, after a 6’45” journey and three hours after my usual bedtime, I was reminded exactly why I don’t schedule a moonlit wander every weekend.